Colorado Considered Giving Death Row Inmates More ‘Leisure Time’ Outside Cells

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Colorado’s Department of Corrections considered allowing death row inmates, who are normally confined to their cells, to have four hours per day of “leisure time” in which they can walk around inside and outside the facility.

Details of this idea were spelled out in an internal email in March, which was recently obtained by the website Complete Colorado.

“We allow offenders with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole to walk around our medium and close custody facilities, who pose no different risk than those with sentences of the death penalty,” wrote DOC employee Kellie Wasko. “So are we really managing those offenders whose sentence is different — however, the same — effectively and equally? We believe that we can do better!”

She goes on to describe a new policy that would allow death row prisoners to be allowed out of their cells for four hours, together, without staff members present in a communal area called a “dayhall.” Prisoners can also spend time outdoors or in shower areas, she wrote.

“[W]e decided that while they are out in the dayhalls, and we are assessing how this will work, we would consider this dayhall a ‘NO STAFF ZONE’ at this time,” Wasko wrote. “So that means that while the offenders are out in their dayhall for their out-of-cell time, staff will not enter into that dayhall for any reason while we assess how this will work for our organization.”

In an article on its website, Complete Colorado wrote that it’s unknown whether the Department of Corrections actually implemented the new policy, but an unidentified staffer said it’s troubling the idea was even proposed.

“Just the mere fact they would even put it out department-wide that they were looking to implement something like that had so many staff shaking their heads,” the employee told the site, noting the employee does not work on death row.

The changes were proposed as Colorado began an overhaul of its policies on solitary confinement, known as administrative segregation. Last year, an inmate who’d spent much of his time in solitary murdered corrections chief Tom Clements and a pizza delivery man while on parole. Clements’ successor, Rick Raemisch, spent 20 hours in solitary as an experiment, leaving with what he described as an “urgency for reform” in an article he wrote about the experience in the New York Times.

Colorado has three inmates on death row: Richard Ray, convicted of ordering a hit on witnesses set to testify against him on another murder charge; Sir Mario Owens, the man who pulled the trigger in the witness killings; and Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people in a holdup at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant.

Although Wasko said in her email that the inmates have no history of behavioral problems in their current confinement to solitary, and should therefore be allowed out of their cells from time to time, District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office prosecuted Dunlap, said a change in policy makes no sense.

“The reason for Administrative Segregation is pretty obvious,” he told Complete Colorado, “which is, once you’ve told someone, ‘We’re going to leave you in prison until we have the ability to kill you, until we have the ability to take your life,’ they are a much bigger risk than others.”

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